Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism: A More Complete Picture

Cover of Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism

Title: Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism

Author: bell hooks

Publication Date: 1981

Library of Congress Call Number: E185.86 .H73

Okay. So I’m a middle class white woman who grew up in a rural and rather monoracial area, and even though I realize that intersecting oppressions are really important, I’m a little shy about writing about race, because seriously, what do I know about it? (This is not to say that race has not influenced my life; I realize that I have white privilege and it has probably had a lot to do with how I live. But it works in such a way as to render it difficult for me to see, and I’m still working on seeing it better.) I don’t want to say something racist that might hurt someone, and I certainly don’t want to come off like the author is criticized in this piece. Of course, not writing about it is also racist… What I’m trying to say here is that I’m a little intimidated, I realize fully that I am not an expert, and that this is me learning.  Tell me if I get something wrong. But of course, this isn’t about me. This is about the history of racism in the United States and how it’s affected both feminism and black women’s (lack of) participation therein.  And actually, one of hooks’s major arguments is that it is both more accurate and more honest to talk about white feminists’ rejection of black women rather than black women’s failure to participate.

Ain’t I a Woman gives a history of sexism-racism against black women in the United States and shows very clearly how sexist-racist attitudes continue to pervade both discourses about history and social justice analyses in the contexts of feminist and anti-racist movements. Slavery is an important part of hooks’s analysis, and she approaches it not only from a historical point of view but also theoretically.  I do think that there’s more awareness now of the way that slavery depended on sexism as well as racism; at any rate, there is much greater recognition of the role that rape played in slavery than there was in 1981 when this book was published.   However, hooks goes a step farther and connects the abuse of black women under slavery to the idealization of white women under the ideology of the “cult of true womanhood,” which was very powerful in the nineteenth century. She writes:

19th century white women were no longer portrayed as sexual temptresses; they were extolled as the “nobler half of humanity” whose duty was to elevate men’s sentiments and inspire their higher impulses.  The new image of white womanhood was diametrically opposed to the old image. She was depicted as goddess rather than sinner; she was virtuous, pure, innocent, not sexual and worldly. … The message of the idealization was this: as long as white women possessed sexual feeling they would be seen as degraded immoral creatures; remove those sexual feelings and they become beings worth of love, consideration, and respect.

The shift away from the image of white woman as sinful and sexual to that of the white woman as virtuous lady occurred at the same time as mass sexual exploitation of enslaved black women—just as the rigid sexual morality of Victorian England created a society in which the extolling of woman as mother and helpmeet occurred at the same time as the formation of a mass underworld of prostitution. As American white men idealized white womanhood, they sexually assaulted and brutalized black women. (31-32)

A lot of this ideological shift was covered by de Beauvoir’s discussion of perceptions of women in The Second Sex, but she left out the other half of it.  Feminine virtue has to be defined by its opposite, so when black women began to represent feminine depravity, that freed up white women to represent virtue.

The idea that all generalized representations are defined against their opposites is not at all a new one to me. I took a theory class in which I was briefly exposed to Lacan, Derrida and Said, who all emphasized this same idea, and while I certainly can’t claim that I have a deep understanding of any of these philosophers, I did take this much away from it.  Every idea that is socially understood is defined as not being something else, but this understanding is often unstated and not even consciously considered. So, for instance, when Said talks about Orientalism, he’s saying that in literary and artistic works of the European colonial period, the notion of the effeminate, treacherous, etc., Middle Eastern or Asian person was used mostly to affirm ideas about white men as a model of straightforward masculinity (and to define what that is supposed to mean), even if no white man actually appears in the works in question, and this can make it difficult to pick up on the fact that this is happening. It’s an extension of a binary system of understanding, in which we know what good is because it isn’t bad, ugly because it isn’t beautiful, and so on and so forth, but it’s deployed in service of colonial/patriarchal/racist/kyriarchal ideology really, really often. De Beauvoir made some references to it as well in her analysis of Woman as Other.

This idea, as I say, wasn’t new to me, so I was actually very surprised that it had never occurred to me to use it to look at gender and race together the way that hooks does.  Ideology is a very, very sneaky thing.  She points out an ideological duality between white women and black women ; white women get to be saintly and asexual as described above, but also passive, helpless, dependent, etc. while black women get stuck with the other side of this coin and get to be seen as controlling, overbearing, oversexualized, unrapeable, and so on.  When it’s spelled out like this, it seems obvious how sexism and racism work together against black women, but somehow our culture has made it invisible.  It’s also clear, of course, that this is not great for white women either, but hooks points out that for them, it’s a much more ambiguous situation for them; it has certain benefits that prevented white women from speaking out against the abuse of black women.

In any case, when we put these together, we get a much clearer picture of the ideology of womanhood. There are two sides to it, which I’ve characterized above (and both of which de Beauvoir had recognized—hers is the text to which this called back the most clearly), but American ideology split it neatly in half and allotted one half to white women and the other to black women.  It’s interesting here to think of other women of color—how does this work for Asian women? Latinas?

In any case, this gets overlooked because “woman” has been redefined as “white woman;” hooks provides several examples of these terms being used interchangeably (my example: I recently read an introduction to a book on race and gender based oppression in the US in the nineteenth century that stated “women could not be enslaved.” NOPE WRONG FAIL. They meant “white women could not be enslaved.”).  The Sojourner Truth speech from which the title of the book is drawn makes the same point.  But looking at the stereotypes of what white women are supposed to be and what black women are supposed to be together provides a much clearer picture of what ideologies of femininity mean, and a much more compelling explanation of the shift that de Beauvoir had noticed than de Beauvoir had herself provided.

(Am I making any sense here?)

This is getting long, so, briefly, there are a couple other things I noticed… First, hooks’s description of the resistance of anti-racist movements to feminism made me think of the Frank Chin’s attacks on Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, in which he objected to their portrayals of Chinese culture as misogynistic.  Surely there is an agenda here somewhere?  Second, when I was first thinking about this book and before I read it, I was careful to look for the way that hooks labeled herself in relation to her philosophy of gender—that is, I wanted to see whether she identifies as a feminist, a womanist, or something else.  So I was gratified to find that she addresses this question in the book. While she is very critical of feminists and feminist history, she is opposed to self-segregation and believes that it’s important to use feminism to fight the problems of sexism-racism, colonialism and capitalism (which she also attacks). I like this argument very much, but it reminds me too of how many fights the Year of Feminist Classics couldn’t address, and how much is out there.  Looking forward to year two 😉

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4 Comments

Filed under Literary thoughts

4 responses to “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism: A More Complete Picture

  1. Fantastic post, so much of what you said resonated with me as well. Though I have read more on race it is still always a bit nerve wracking to write about – but I always just hope that people will tell me if I go wrong so that I can improve in the future. Loved how hooks pulled everything together into such a fantastic little book – she could have gone on for another hundred pages and I’d have still been enthralled!

    Also, yes yes yes, cannot wait for year two!

  2. Thanks, Amy!
    I was actually very surprised by her writing style; I’d encountered references to her in academic texts, so I thought her writing would be a little drier and more, well, academic. But instead, it was very engaging, with a strong voice. Totally agree that I could have kept reading for another hundred pages.

  3. Thanks for your post, it was excellent. 🙂

  4. Excellent response. You really did understand the important point that Hooks is making and you right in connecting it with the other authors you discuss.

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